Two years into Putin’s war against the global order Moscow declares a new Cold War in Munich. How would Putin view his progress?
One should begin with Putin’s world view and his closest security advisors. Putin and his security elite pursued three primary and interrelated goals upon his return to power in 2012: (a) the survival of the Putin regime against a Colored Revolution; (b) fabricating a Russian domestic identity opposed to American internationalism; and (c) creating a Russian led geopolitical order breaking American unipolar hegemony.
Putin began his war with the same inner circle in place today. Members still include FSB Chairman Bortnikov, former FSB Chairman and now Chair of the National Security Council Patrushev, SVR Chair Fradkov, Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov (former KGB, Putin FSB associate & Minister of Defense) and others. Minister of Defense Shoigu is not a full member of the innermost circle but actively participates; he was a popular civilian political figure before assuming his post. Still further outside the inner circles are a number of other former intelligence officers, such as RISI Chair General Reshetnikov, other former KGB or FSB associates.
Non power entities like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Finance, etc. remain outsiders and may be consulted but are rarely included in key national security decision-making. Putin’s Central Banker and Minister of Finance, for example, often can not get a face to face meeting. (Putin’s disdain for technocratic experts is well known). Patrushev, not the Ministry of Finance, ruled on potential defense budget restrictions.
Putin’s innermost security circle share a counter-intelligence culture. That circle in turn activated and uses various nationalist, ultra-nationalist, fascist and Orthodox voices as useful. The KGB fostered that symbiotic relationship during the later Soviet era; the contemporary relationship remains utilitarian. All nonetheless share a perceived threat from globalization and international norms long pre-dating Ukraine’s Maidan in 2014.
The counter-intelligence ideology – as during the Soviet period – attributes American causality to international events. Putin et al. continue to believe American policies purposefully create so-called Colored Revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Georgia, Ukraine and intended to export one to Russia. The tautology? American power drives globalization, so any event touched by globalization is America’s fault. Moreover, American media and social technology such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are seen as weapons promoting American hegemony. A Russian response requires control, censorship or manipulation via state-sponsored information war campaigns.
The 2012 Bolotnaya Moscow protesters demonstrating against Putin’s return to power confirmed Putin’s view of attempted American regime change. A counter-intelligence mind set perceives intent and linkages signaling threats in Moscow – as made clear by this March 2016 development. Maidan is another example; Putin himself declared America manipulated Ukrainians “like rats” to overthrow Yanukovich, ushering in Maidan. To dismiss this view as mere rhetoric is a mistake. Patrushev accused the US of using Ukraine as a pretext to overthrow the Kremlin and split Russia. Reshetnikov from RISI frequently uses KGB tradecraft frames to uncover alleged CIA and American operations driving many contemporary events.
These specific potential revolutions are seen as the inevitable result of US-led globalization, the proxy for American power and unipolar hegemony. The Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI), the Kremlin think tank, recently described international globalization and norms as an existential threat to Russian distinctiveness and geopolitical identity.
Europe is an important Russian target in Putin’s war for two reasons. First, as Timothy Snyder et al. emphasize, Russia is outclassed only by a unified EU. Russia would be again closer as a peer power with the EU collapsed, facing individual countries. Secondly, American power is seen as rooted in the unified Western idea. Breaking the EU is a means of ejecting America from the European littoral.
In this context, ascribing Western notions of defensive and offensive actions to Moscow can be misleading. Russian counter-intelligence mind-set stipulates Russia faces a protracted existential threat. This siege mentality assumes a priori that the assault already began. Accordingly, actions responding to (notional) assault may be rationalized as defensive. Reduction of tensions through Western compromise that do not dismantle globalization and international norms will not alleviate the existential threat. Mirror imaging Western notions of rationality will misidentify Russian threat perceptions and decision loops.